A Friend Comes to Visit

Last March, I was lucky enough to have a friend from the U.S. come visit me here in Perú. We spent about 1 week together, hanging out in my site, Caraz, and getting to know some other sites and scenes here in Áncash. So, in order to get a different perspective about Perú, here is a guest blog post from my friend Nish about his time here in Áncash. Since Nish is incredibly busy with Medical School, I made the Guest Blog easy on him by writing up a few interview questions to answer. I hope you all enjoy!

1)   What’s your name and what’s your current job? 

Nish Pandya and  Medical Student at the Sidney Kimmel Medical College.

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Budding Doctor Nish, overlooking the Río Santa behind my house.

2)   How do you know the PCV?

(I’m guessing this means Peace Corps Volunteer). Despite graduating from rival high schools, Mark and I both met as freshmen at Penn State University. We were both heavily involved in a service organization and were roommates during our senior year. 

3)   What did you know about Perú before your visit?

My greatest exposure to Peru before the visit must have been from watching The Emperors’s New Groove. Through high school Spanish courses we had learned countries and capitals, so I could locate it on a map but not much else.

4)   What did you learn about Perú from your visit?

Mark had mentioned this, but life really did seem to move a step slower in Peru. As a “Northeasterner” at heart, it was a stark difference that stood out. The views and natural beauty of the Ancash region I had the opportunity to see made me wonder if stock photos for “awesome sights” are taken in Peru.

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Nish at Laguna Querococha on our way to the Chavín Arqueological Site

5) What was your favorite dish you tried?

Whenever I travel, my goal is to try something I probably will not have the chance to eat again. This made me excited to try guinea pig for the first time.

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Trying cuy (guinea pig) for the first time

6)   What do you think of the PCV’s work in his site?

It didn’t surprise me after having known Mark for 5 years, but Mark seemed to have a positive and friendly relationship with so many people he came across at his site. He was continually running into people he knew and it really helped me see how much Mark had tried to become part of the community. I enjoyed listening to the many plans Mark was continually balancing and trying to execute, which really showed the impact he wanted to make with a multi-pronged approach. 

7)   What is your favorite memory from the trip?

Another Peace Corps Volunteer gave us an oral history of the avalanche at Yungay while walking through the area it affected. Hearing that story at its site was a really memorable part of my trip.

8)   What did you know about Peace Corps before your visit? What did you learn about Peace Corps from your visit?

The camaraderie between the Peace Corps Volunteers was really wonderful to see. In theory, each volunteer has a different background but shares the desire to make a positive impact on the people and community they live with. Seeing the power of a shared goal bring people together was powerful to see.

9)   What is your favorite breakfast cereal?

Honey Bunches of Oats

10)  If you could be any Pokémon, which would you be and why?

I would be Farfetch’d because few people would believe I was a Pokemon.

Farfetch'd
Farfetch’d, the Wild Duck Pokémon (http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/es.pokemon/images/b/b5/Farfetch’d.png/revision/latest?cb=20080908162845)

11)  Is there anything else you would like to share?

Nah i’m good.

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I hope you enjoyed hearing a friend’s perspective on his time in Perú. Look out for another guest blog post in the next few weeks about a few more friends who came to visit in May.

Until next time,

MGB

 

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Christmas in Caraz

Ok, so Christmas was a long time ago, but better late than never, right?

Perú is a very religious country, with the predominant religion being Catholicism. An estimated 85% of Perú’s citizens self-identify as Catholic, and Catholicism is even directly mentioned in the Peruvian Constitution as having been an important component to the country’s development. Consequently, Christmas, or Navidad as it is known here, is quite a big deal, although not in the overtly commercialized sense that it is celebrated in the US.

Christmastime here in Caraz is characterized by lots of masses and religious celebrations, family time, and the ever so popular  Chocolatada. So, what is a chocolatada? Well, my best translation would be a “Hot Chocolate Party”, but in reality those words fail to summarize the occasions.

Essentially a chocolatada in an event where people from the community come to drink “hot chocolate”, eat Panetón (essentially fruit-cake, but not the bad brick-like monstrosity we have in the States), and socialize, all while enjoying some kind of strange Holiday-themed show which tends to involve people in Santa Claus costumes dancing and engaging kids in strange contests. If you are a student, mother, municipality worker, essentially anyone really, you will probably attend anywhere from 3-4 chocolatadas between November and Christmas Day. I think I ended up attending around 6 this past year, not regretting having attended a single one.

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The chocolatada entertainment

Apart from the Chocolatadas, many people receive Christmas baskets from their employers or from government programs such as Vaso de Leche. Since I work with the municipality, I got a HUGE basket full of random things like sugar and milk, that I ended up just donating to my host-family, because what am I going to do with a few kilos of sugar?

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My Christmas canasta (basket), complete with Panetón (the bread thing)

But, chocolatadas are only one aspect of Christmas festivities here in Perú. While decorating houses with trees and lights in the fashion we do in the States is not the norm, my Municipality did adorn our wonderful plaza with some lights and Christmas figurines which definitely reminded me of home. But personally, the best part of the Christmas season for me is the celebration with my host-family. Here in Áncash and most of Perú, Christmas is celebrated differently than in the US. While for most Christmas-celebrating US citizens, the primary day of activities is Dec. 25th, in Perú most of the celebrating is actually done on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24th.

So how did I celebrate Christmas Eve? Well, I worked with my family in the chacra in the morning, helped to feed our animals, and then just kind of hung around the house. Around late afternoon, the festivities began to pick up with relatives coming over to the house to chat and drink, and my host-mom and aunt starting to prepare chicharrón de chancho from the meat of our Christmas pig. Meanwhile, I was upstairs talking to some relatives about American music, how we celebrate Christmas in the USA, and politely refusing beer offered to me every 15 minutes or so. Around 11:00pm however, we all gathered in the kitchen to eat our chicharrón de chanco with choclo (basically corn-on-the-cob).

Not surprisingly,  people started to get tired after the meal. While my host-mom/dad/brother decided to go to sleep, my host-sister and I stayed up for a while because the tradition here is to stay awake until midnight and then do the gift exchange. The gift exchange had to wait until Christmas morning (because of sleeping), but I’m glad I stayed awake because as soon as 12:00am arrived, the neighborhood came to life with the sounds of fireworks bursting and cracking in the night. It was so different from how I would celebrate in the US, but it was wonderful, and I definitely think Christmas Eve fireworks should become a thing back home.

Christmas Day itself was quite tame, with the gift exchange happening late in the morning. I got some candy and a motorcycle clock from my host-family, and gave them various tiny gifts.

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Unwrapping presents. He got a laser gun.

The best part, was receiving a phone call from my family in the US, and being able to talk not only with my mom, dad, and sisters, but also my grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles. The rest of the day was quite calm, but as night approached, my host-dad revealed a surprise; chispitas! (sparklers). My host-siblings had never used them before, so I had to show them the ropes. While my brother was afraid at first, after about 5 minutes he was sold, and began pretending he was Harry Potter casting spells. He subsequently told me dad, “tienes que comprar estos todos los días”, or “you have to buy these every day”. While Christmas in Caraz was different, it was nice, and I enjoyed experiencing a shared holiday in a new manner.

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Pretending to be Harry Potter.

Oh, and a few weeks later, Christmas presents arrived from my friends and family, so that was a great late Christmas surprise.

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The haul from my family in the U.S.

While Christmas in Perú was definitely different from Christmas in the U.S., I had a great time and am glad to have been able to experience the holiday from a different perspective.

MGB

Star Wars Fever

So I’m a big nerd/geek, whatever you want to call it. I enjoy reading fantasy series, still play Pokémon, have seen the Lord of the Rings multiple times, see every Marvel movie as they come out, and avidly enjoy Doctor Who. Like most people who share these interests, I had been eagerly anticipating the arrival of the new Star Wars movie for over a year. But unlike most Star Wars fans, I am currently in Perú in the Peace Corps, which presents some challenges when wanting to go see the latest movies, especially if you want to see them in English.

The department of Áncash, where I am serving, is chock-full of snow-capped mountains (for now), but unfortunately a little short on movie theaters. Our regional capital, Huaráz, despite having a wide selection of international foods, does not have a movie theater. I still cannot fathom why a city so large does not have a movie theater and I hope that someone will construct one there during my 2 years of service. So, in talking with other Volunteers, I discovered that the nearest movie theater in Áncash was in the coastal city of Chimbote.

So, on the evening of December 18th, I traveled from Caraz with a friend from Huaráz and a friend from Caraz to Chimbote on the bus line the Yungay Express. We arrived in Chimbote at 2:30am, and immediately grabbed a taxi to my friend’s house, since we would be staying with his family who currently live there. Now, if I had to describe Chimbote in one word, the word I would choose is fish. Lying on the coast, Chimbote has a huge fishing industry, a fact hard to miss given the overwhelming fish odor that permeates the city for the greater portion of the day. On top of that, Chimbote is really HOT, which only makes the smell even worse.

After we grabbed some ZZZs, my friend gave us a tour around the city, taking us to the few “touristy” sites. After whiling away the morning on the streets of Chimbote, we returned to my friend’s house for a hearty meal before setting out to accomplish the principal mission of the trip: see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We grabbed a cab to the mall, identified the movie theater and then purchased our tickets, for Star Wars: El Despertar de la Fuerza. If you didn’t notice, the Star Wars title is in Spanish, because I saw the new Star Wars movie in Spanish.  When I saw the Star Wars Crawl appear in Spanish on the screen, I couldn’t help but burst out laughing in the theater.

 

despertar de la fuerza
Image from: tinyurl.com/j9jc2w6

I was sincerely hoping that I would hit a stroke of luck and find a showing in English, but deep down I think I always knew that if I managed to see Star Wars, it was going to be in Spanish. Despite not being able to hear the iconic voices of Han Solo and Leia Organa throughout the movie, I thought the film was fantastic. This Star Wars movie, for me at least, managed to capture the magic of the original trilogy, and throughout the entire movie I was just overwhelmed with wave after wave of nostalgia. It was incredible, despite it being in Spanish, and I wanted to watch it again and again. I’m hoping to catch it in English sometime in the near future, but for now my Star Wars fix has been adequately met, and I’m already making plans with other Volunteers to see the next installment (this time in English) in 2017.

If you somehow haven’t managed to see the movie yet, I recommend that you get yourself to a movie theater ASAP.

Best,

MGB

Thanksgiving in Perú

Peruvians don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Seeing that Thanksgiving is an American holiday, I really shouldn’t have been too surprised at its absence and honestly, in the days leading up to Thanksgiving, I had forgot it was even approaching. Consequently, I didn’t really make a big deal about it here, or make much of an effort to share the holiday tradition with my host-family. I won’t be making the same mistake next year.

Most of Thanksgiving Day, I spent in my room watching movies, trying to cope with the sadness of not being home for the holiday. However, around dinnertime, my host-sister came and knocked on my door and asked if I wanted to come help make cachangas, a type of fried bread that tastes similar to a funnel cake. I decided to acabar with my moping, and spent the next hour making and eating these bread patties with my family. While it wasn’t a Thanksgiving feast, it was appreciated, and left me happy as I settled down for the evening.

Now, just because I missed out on a Thanksgiving feast with my host-family, don’t think that I didn’t get to enjoy my turkey, potatoes, casseroles, and pies. On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, we had a Volunteer Thanksgiving in our regional capital, Huaráz, where we were able to share our US tradition with some Peruvian friends. Oh my, and what a Thanksgiving it was. We had wayyyyy too much food (as is required), and in fact food of all varieties: turkey, chicken, bacon-green bean casserole, pies, potatoes, roasted vegetables, ice cream cake, stuffing, french fries, etc.

By the end of the evening, I was happily drifting into a food coma, still recalling all of the wonderful things that I had consumed. Dish of the night has to go to Nathan who made the Green Bean Casserole with bacon. I couldn’t stop eating it. I didn’t realize how much I had missed bacon until I took my first bite of that glorious, crispy, meat.

Overall, Volunteer Thanksgiving was a huge success, but I need to work on host-family Thanksgiving for 2016.

MGB

Officially a Volunteer

So Friday was a big day for me and all my fellow Peace Corps Perú 25 trainees.  Friday was swearing-in day, the day we took our official oaths of service and became fully-fledged Peace Corps Volunteers.  It was certainly an emotional day for me and all of the other trainees.

We started off with a few short wrap-up activities in the training center before gathering all of our belongings, packing them into some combis, and shipping off to Lima to the Peace Corps Office.  When we arrived in Lima, we had some time to say hi to some staff and grab a bite to eat before we hopped on a different bus to head to the U.S. Ambassador to Perú’s house.  For lunch, my good friends Jamie, Wes, Morgan, and I grabbed food at Subway; after 3+ months, a meatball sub with pickles and onions never tasted so good.

On the bus ride over to the Ambassador’s house, the emotions were slowly, but steadily rising.  When we finally arrived, we popped inside and assumed on seats on stage as the audience began to fill with Peace Corps staff, NGO workers, current Peace Corps volunteers, and of course members of our amazing host families.  Before the ceremony began, I was able to hop on over to the bathroom, and I must say that it was the nicest bathroom I have ever seen in Perú.

Once the ceremony began, the anticipation among the volunteers was tangible as we drew closer and closer to the big moment.  The ceremony kicked off with the singing of the Peruvian National Anthem and the Star Spangled Banner, and I’m ashamed to say we all messed up our National Anthem, mostly because we didn’t realize there was no introductory music, and it just started right away.

During the ceremony, we heard speeches from our incredible Training Manager, Enrique Liñan, a representative of the training host families, the US Ambassador, Bryan Nichols, and the Peace Corps Perú Country Director, Parmer Heacox.  They shared words of wisdom, and advice, and after the speeches we were officially sworn in by the Ambassador and Parmer, who later gave us our official Peace Corps Volunteer certificates.

After all of this, the big moment came, the moment in which I, the President of Perú 25, had to give a speech to my friends and now fellow volunteers, and all those in attendance.  My speech is below, but it’s in Spanish, so sorry to all of my English-only followers.

Swearing-In Day Speech

While my speech marked the end of the Swearing-In ceremony, it also marked the beginning of the tears.  The following 45 minutes or so were wonderful and emotional.  I hugged my host-mother several times, took lots of photos, received lots of compliments on my speech from staff/fellow volunteers, chatted with a volunteer who served in Perú way back in 1965, and enjoyed lots of snacks (water, chocolate chip cookies, taquitos, ceviches, causa, etc.).  It was hard to say goodbye to my host-mom, and though I didn’t tear up as much as some of my fellow volunteers, it was still an emotional experience nonetheless.

The bus ride back to the Peace Corps office was heavy, but we did our best to enjoy the time together.  We had some great games of “Would you rather…” and “Would you marry someone who is perfect in every way except…”, I shared my Swedish Fish, and I enjoyed some final face-to-face conversation with my boy Jamie.  When we got to the Peace Corps office, there were more tears, lots of hugs, lots of photos, and lots of goodbyes.  I’m going to miss my training group so much, and I wish I had had more time to say goodbye, but I’m looking forward to visiting them, especially my Amazonas amigos, over the next 2 years.

From the Peace Corps office, I headed to my hostel with few other Volunteers who also weren’t leaving that night, and then went out with two volunteers from Ancash who were in for the week.  We went to an amazing burrito place in Miraflores (Lima) called Burrito Bar, Barranco Beer Company, and then Wong (a Target-like store), where my fellow Ancashino Kevin and I bought some stuff we would need at site.  Within Wong, I found something amazing: Turkey Hill Ice cream.  I have absolutely no idea how or why there is Turkey Hill Ice cream in Perú, but all I can say is I bought myself a quart of Cookies n’ Cream and it was absolutely the same as what I know from the States.

All in all, swearing in was an emotional day, and I’m definitely going to miss my friends (who I hope will call me frequently), but I’m also very excited to get to my site and begin to work in my community.

Since I haven’t quite figured out the wifi situation in my site yet, it might be a while before my next post.  Also, I’ll eventually update this post with some photos once I get them from other volunteers and Peace Corps staff.

MGB

“Government issued friends and family”

While the retreat was busy, it was also very fun and a great introduction into Peru and the Peace Corps experience.  We had diversity exercises, safety and security meetings, and reviewed many of the expectations of Peace Corps volunteers, all the while diving into Peruvian food which, if you haven’t heard, is incredibly tasty.

 On Saturday, we had our first of many breakout sessions with our Peace Corps sectors. I belong to MAC (Manejo Ambiental Comunitario ~ Community Based Environmental Management) and our program coordinator is Diego Shootbridge, an enthusiastic, straight-shooting Peruvian with years of experience in environmental work. He broke down the focus of our sector into 3 areas via an easy to remember mantra:  Education, Trees, Garbage (look out for a blog post with this title in the future).  He talked about his expectations for MAC volunteers and his high hopes for us, MAC 25, the last MAC group to be sent to Peru (save the best for last, I hope!).

In addition to work, there was also a lot of play, and many moments that showed me what a special group of people I will be working with throughout training, and hopefully the next two years.  Some highlights of the weekend include several games of Cards Against Humanity (Peace Corps Trainees make surprisingly good CAH players), a mock-graduation ceremony for those who had to miss graduation because of service, birthday cards for the two birthdays of the weekend, a fantastic game of soccer on a concrete court (I had 3 goals, and most importantly an great time), a late night campfire complete with guitar, plastic trashcan drums, trumpet, and sing-alongs, and our training host family (familia anfitriona) assignments.

It was a great weekend and a fantastic way to kick off the Peace Corps experience.  I have definitely made some great connections and friendships among my fellow volunteers already, and I’m looking forward to developing them as time continues.

MGB

Safe and Sound

In case you didn’t know, I arrived safely to Peru.  Departure day started bright and early with a 7am check out from the hotel; with our matching Peace Corps t-shirts and mounds of luggage, we definitely overwhelmed the lobby.

Peace Corps takes over the lobby
Peace Corps takes over the lobby

When we finally arrived at Reagan Airport in DC to begin our travels, we had a chance encounter with the current director of the Peace Corps, Carrie Hessler-Radelet.  It was definitely a star-struck moment for me, and I think many other of the volunteers.

Carrole shaking hands with the Peace Corps director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet
Carrole shaking hands with the Peace Corps director, Carrie Hessler-Radelet.

Finally, around 12:30pm we were off, and after hours of travel, malfunctioning video screens on our Houston-Lima flight, and a final “American” meal of pizza and Panda Express, we finally landed in Peru around 11:30pm Thursday evening (May 7th).  After disembarking the plane, we found two Peace Corps Peru staff members with signs who took us through immigration via the Diplomat line (I guess they pulled a few strings) and helped us to locate our luggage.  For a few of us, the elite “Grupo 60”, it seems that there was some confusion with processing our immigration papers; while we should have received a stamp for 160 days, we only were given 60.  The lucky 25 or so of us that were members of Grupo 60 had to wait about 30 minutes in the baggage area while a PC staff member went to get the forms corrected.

Finally, after lots of waiting and anticipation, we were able to pass through customs and go out to meet the other volunteers.  As I cross the threshold of the door to join the other volunteers, I suddenly saw a bunch of people cheering and waving signs, and I think to myself, “Oh wow, I wonder who they are so excited about?”.  About half a second later, I realized they were all Peace Corps staff and volunteers who had come to welcome us to the country.  I was floored; what an incredible way to be greeted in a country that will be my home for the next 2 years.  I hope that I will be able to greet new trainees when I am further along in my Peace Corps experience. 

Once everyone had emerged, we began our 1.5 hr bus ride to the retreat center; please note that it was already about 1am by the time we got to the busses.  Needless to say, everyone was exhausted after a full day of traveling, and looking forward to a full night’s sleep.  Unfortunately, we didn’t get to bed until 3:30am and retreat activities started bright and early at 8am, so a full night’s sleep wasn’t in the cards.  At this point, the significance of landing in Peru and arriving at the training center hasn’t set in, but I’m sure the reality of it all will slowly begin to sink in as training begins.

MGB